Recently the US presidential elections have dominated the news. The understanding of American culture and history has never been more needed. LeidenGlobal spoke with university lecturer American studies dr. Sara Polak about her fascination with origin stories, her new research about cartoonish president Trump and the changing media ecosystem.
Polak’s fascination with the United States started during her English literature degree at Cambridge University, where she was drawn into the country’s love of origin stories. “In 19th century Europe nation building was at its height. In the United States, it has never stopped. Story-telling, memory-making and the creation of (national) identity are intertwined.” In 2015, she finished her PhD on Franklin Roosevelt as an icon in American memory (book available in 2021).
The cultural memory of Roosevelt’s illness was the connection to Polak’s next research: the Ebola epidemic in the American cultural imagination, as expressed via Twitter. Outbreak narratives and associations with monsters and zombies are analysed in a collection she has co-edited Embodying Contagion: The Viropolitics of Horror and Desire in Contemporary Discourse (April 2021). One Twitter user who played a key role in fuelling the ‘Ebola Scare’ was Donald Trump. That was how she ended up at her current project: Trump as a Twitter president. “His communicative behaviour is cartoon-like; it revolves around the ridiculous and the outrageous, which we have to take very seriously.” Trump actively invites the production of political cartoons and memes about himself, instead of solely being an object of cartoons, she explains. He often retweets them, with considerable political impact.
The presidency and its relationship with the media figures prominently in her research. Franklin Roosevelt was the first US president to develop a highly intimate radio style, Kennedy did the same with television and Trump uses Twitter in a new and influential way. “Although Trump follows a fairly consistent media logic, it is not the one we are used to, so he seems unpredictable.” Through this project, she is attached to the new research theme, ‘Play and Media’.
She struggles with the fact that Trump constantly acts outrageously to be in the spotlight, and her research gives him exactly that. But as a researcher she tries to make sense of the underlying cultural and media structures. “There is a new media ecosystem and it is important that we all think about this.”
Sara Polak analysed the US elections on November 3rd and 4th at Terzake (VRT) on Canvas Belgium.
>>Photo by Hedske Vochteloo
Interview by LeidenGlobal intern Karianne Ooijevaar